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Discussing Social Sensory Cognition Therapy with Kids Cooperate

September 14, 2021

This article takes a look at social sensory cognitive therapy through an interview between Autism Parenting Magazine and Director of Connecticut social skills group Kids Cooperate, Aaron Weintraub.

Discussing Social Sensory Cognition Therapy with Kids Cooperate

Hi Aaron. Tell me, how did you come to create Kids Cooperate?

My background is in Human Development. I attended the University of Vermont, the University of Arkansas, and Virginia Tech. I studied Human Development which is a hybrid of sociology and psychology that focuses on the relationship between human interaction and their environment. Then I worked in Virginia as a crisis counselor in-home. My mentor for developing an autism social skills group curriculum was Jonathon Cooper. When I moved up here to Connecticut for my wife to teach I noticed a need for social skills groups especially east of the (CT) river.

How many groups do you have?

We went from one Kids Cooperate group to five groups in just one year. We cover preschool to high school (age two through teens.)

What makes your program unique from other social skills groups?

Our innovation has been to move the intervention point from meta-cognition about the interaction to the sensory experience that serves as a foundation for the interaction. Well, typical social skills groups teach that you must have all these social skills in your “toolbox” such as eye contact, and hope that the child applies it. The problem with that is that peers sense that kids are “faking it” and instinctually draw back from them. So we are sending the message to be different but be authentic, an impossible double bind.

Aaron Weintraub

So what do you recommend for children on the spectrum?

I found kids were overstimulated or they go into a room and find it’s too loud. One kid said to me, “My mind is an earthquake!” I wrote an article called My Mind is an Earthquake: The Creation of the Social Sensory Cognition Process and in it, I explain how we teach these social skills and expect the kids to process the information and use these “social tools” that they were taught while experiencing an earthquake.

In traditional social skills groups the children are taught to think about: What is her face telling me? Am I one arm’s length away? Process that information and then react in a natural way. It’s like teaching someone math, while an earthquake is occurring. So we were trying to build a mentor relationship with the child by starting out telling them that the way they experience the world is wrong. You can’t mentor that way, which is why I developed the “social sensory cognition process.”

Tell us about the social sensory cognition process

It is based on creating a space for three important processes: listening, sharing, and participating. We use “connected conversations” to start the group each session. We talk about our successes and our challenges of the week because what the kids bring to the group is relevant and an effort is made to bring each child’s interests and concerns into the plan for the week. 

Kids Learn Social Sensory Cognition Therapy
The curriculum is still emergent. Then we have a teaching component in which the three social senses are reinforced in some way. The three social senses are the critical sensory elements of any interaction that must be attended to in order to create an authentic and meaningful connection. The three social senses are sight, sound, and social space. The kids are divided into small groups for activities during which the facilitators look for teachable moments to reinforce the use of the three social senses and provide positive feedback and support.

How often do the groups meet?

Each group meets once a week.

Is it billable through insurance or do parents need to pay for it privately?

No, it isn’t. Parents pay for it privately but being accessible to as many people as possible is important to me so I am very conscious about keeping the cost down.

How do you use sensory cognition therapy in the groups?

We focus on the sensory experience of interaction. An example exercise that I have read about is: when you throw the kid a ball nine out of ten times a kid will say “I’m not athletic”. I can’t catch it. However, if you say something like: “All I want you to do this time is tell me which way the ball is spinning, and which way are the lines spinning”, then throw it to them, before you know it they are catching the ball because what you have done is create a sensory task that they are able to complete. 

Maybe they’re not going to be a professional baseball pitcher but they can tell which way the ball is coming and, in the context of that success, I am more successful overall. So the relationship corollary to that is we have developed this heuristic of sight, sound, and space.  

These are not tricky scientific terms:

  • Sight is what the eyes are telling you: the expression on the person’s face, what’s going on around you, and drawing your focus to the social information you are receiving from your eyes
  • Sound in terms of the meaning of the words, the tone of voice the volume of their voice
  • Space meaning their own body awareness being in their own space, being aware of their own space between them and their own space. We also consider social touch, which is when is it appropriate to high five or fist bump, and context (i.e. you wouldn’t have the same conversation in the library compared to a parking lot where there are cars driving around).

Then what we will do is try to figure out the cognitive equivalent of muscle memory and try (during therapy) to help the children bring their awareness back using these three senses (sight, sound and space.) In the long term what we are trying to achieve here is their reaction. If we are going to react instantaneously and authentically in a relationship what our brain does in the instant that it is happening is flip through all these pictures of other social interactions. 

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We think: what is this like, what is this not like, is this safe, is this not safe? However for a person with sensory issues (and this could be for people on the autism spectrum but also for people with ADHD) if there’s a fluorescent light flickering in the corner during class and that is all that you can focus on, then you have created an incomplete social memory of the interactions that you are in. 

For an adult that is typing away on their phone later they can’t go back and use it in a way for a social interaction that they are having. So using these three senses we are trying to create a complete social memory of the interactions that they are having and they develop a bank of these social interactions that they can flip through to help them. Instead of sensory memories such as this zipper feels like a cactus on the back of my neck and this light is flickering because it’s about to die, and the dishwasher is whining. What does that mean? Well, you get a complete social interaction to use in the future. On its basis, it is drawing attention to the important aspects of the social interaction to create an authentic connection and maybe that’s successful and maybe that’s not but you take what you can get and apply what you have learned from it to your future interactions.

During the social playgroups how many kids do you have? How many peer mentors? How many adults?

It depends on the age group. For the younger kids, we have a cap of five kids per group because we find that works best for the dynamic and the space. We have no less than one peer mentor and two to three children per facilitator. Sometimes groups have kids that really need to be one-on-one to stay on task and others that don’t. I often find myself overstaffed but I’d rather be overstaffed than not have enough help. Our biggest group is our intermediate group which is kids ages eight to 11 years old and that is about a ratio of four to one.

Can you give me one activity for the younger group that you have used or one for the intermediate group?

All of our groups follow the same protocol which is a three-step approach, which is listening, sharing, and then applying. So each group starts with a “connective conversation,” which is the kids come in and sit down at a table together and we share some food and we talk about what has been going on in our lives in the past week, all of our successes and challenges. 

What the facilitators are listening for at this time is what is relevant to the children at that time because we want to use what is important to them and what is relevant to them in their lives. Then there is a teaching component where I will introduce an idea. For this week we talked about two components: there is what happens and then the story we bring to it. After that we move into small group activities for the last half of the session where the content of the session is less important compared to the context. Often children bring in stuff from home that they want to share. 

Sometimes I have a game I have discovered that I think will lead to good conversation but the game is less important than the fact that they are in small groups which gives the facilitators a chance to come around and help them and bring their awareness back to the three social senses. Where is your body? Where is your friend’s body? What information are you getting? We try to really work that cognitive muscle memory and to get them used to doing that.  If you see them employing one of their sensory self-regulation techniques like looking up at the lights or rocking back and forth or fiddling with their sleeve we try to draw them out of their space and into the social space or sometimes out of the social space back into their personal space if they are losing touch with where their body is and what their voice is doing. So that is my very long-winded answer to say that what activity we do or the games we play are really only the scaffolding for the process that we do.

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